Week of Friday, March 17, 2023
This week's issue runs the gamut from Happily: A Personal History--with Fairy Tales, a "bubbling cauldron filled with ingredients as diverse as parenting and premonitions, mythological creatures and marriage" by Paris Review columnist Sabrina Orah Mark, to Julie Gerstenblatt's "engrossing" debut novel, Daughters of Nantucket, which explores the options for women--white and Black--in the mid-19th century, to Death and Croissants, an "absurd, laugh-out-loud caper" featuring a B&B host turned detective that's "sure to delight fans of cozy mysteries and whodunits." Plus so many more!
In The Writer's Life, Sabaa Tahir talks about moving from fantasy to realistic fiction, and the research she did for her Printz and National Book Award-winner All My Rage.
The Best Books This Week
Daughters of Nantucket
by Julie Gerstenblatt
Julie Gerstenblatt's engrossing debut novel, Daughters of Nantucket, explores the options for women--white and Black--in the mid-19th century while bringing a historical tragedy to life. Nantucket Island, Mass., has a fiercely independent identity in 1846. Long known as a whaling capital, it is also socially progressive, supporting abolition and educating people who were once enslaved. Metaphorical conflagrations blaze in the background in the days leading up to the great Nantucket fire: each of three female protagonists holds a burning secret and longs for a more expansive, authentic life. Eliza Macy's husband, a sea captain, has been away for years; until he returns with valuable whale oil, she faces bankruptcy. Meanwhile, she faces temptation when the sweetheart from her youth returns to town. Maria Mitchell (the only historical figure of the trio) runs the town's Atheneum library and museum but must hide her love for women. Meg Wright, a nine-months-pregnant Black woman, hopes to open a cobbler shop but fears for her children at a time of social divisions.
The action spans two tense weeks--one week before the fire through eight days after. The women's lives collide in two climactic scenes: first, a town council meeting where Eliza, voicing the same "separate but equal" ideology that reinforces school segregation, opposes the Wrights' business proposal; then, one July night, with the fire raging, Meg's labor begins--and help comes from unexpected quarters.
Gerstenblatt's eye for detail results in sultry historical fiction perfect for Sue Monk Kidd's fans; it ponders bravery, prejudice and what is worth fighting for. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck
by Alice Winn
Two English boarding school students in the mid-1910s have nearly everything working against them in Alice Winn's assured debut novel, In Memoriam. Preshute College classmates Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood have advantages; both, for instance, come from privileged backgrounds. But they're also gay and attracted to one another at a time in Britain in which it is illegal. Then World War I breaks out, an event that has special resonance for Jewish Ellwood and part-German Gaunt. Soon, Gaunt has enlisted ("If we have a son in the army, no one will dare say we are not patriotic," his mother tells him), and Ellwood, who is fond of quoting such Tennyson poems as "In Memoriam A.H.H.," reluctantly follows.
Much of this novel takes place on and around battlefields, including Flanders and the Somme, and depicts the conflicts Gaunt and Ellwood endure--the atrocities of war and the personal challenges of navigating their love. The novel takes a while to get going but, once the war begins, Winn displays a sure touch. The prose isn't elegant, but Winn makes up for this with brisk pacing and jam-packed scenes that address the English class divide, antigay and antisemitic sentiments and more. She excels at writing battle scenes in which cinephiles will detect the influence of such films as The Grand Illusion and The Great Escape. Late in the novel, Ellwood says, "I do think it's peculiar, how much more drawn people are to disaster than to beauty." As Winn instinctively knows, if the goal is to clear a path to beauty, start by eliminating the calamities and prejudices that block the way. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
Women Are the Fiercest Creatures
by Andrea Dunlop
"If everything women do is invisible, people have an excuse to erase them." Andrea Dunlop (We Came Here to Forget) weaves this theme across the stories of the three women, connected via the man they (used to, or maybe still) love, at the center of Women Are the Fiercest Creatures.
"This is what a feminist looks like?" writes a journalist in a scathing feature article about Jake Sarnoff, "a straight white male tech impresario longing to distance himself from any of the negative associations with those identity labels," and the social media app he's about to make public. She's right to question him. Jake's actions speak louder than his words: he's left Anna, his first wife and mother of his two teen sons, and married Jessica, a much younger Instagram influencer now expecting their child. Also in the mix is Sam, his college sweetheart, with whom he had a brief affair again somewhere in the midst of his marriage to Anna. It's not just Jake's interpersonal relationships that are messy but also the ways in which he draws these women into supporting him and his business: "For years, his selfishness had been burnished by the various people in his life... orbiting around him like planets, always subject to his pull." As the women in Jake's life break free of his pull, they discover, individually and as a collective, their fierceness. And while Jake's comeuppance at the end of the smart and provocative Women Are the Fiercest Creatures feels predictable and a little tidy, it is also immensely satisfying to see these nuanced, imperfect women thrive in a male-dominated world. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer
by Emilia Hart
Emilia Hart's first novel, Weyward, glows and glimmers with hidden powers, thrills and danger, a close connection with nature and between women across time. Three distinct stories eventually link to form a larger tale about strength, resilience and love.
Altha goes on trial for witchcraft in the English countryside in 1619. In 2019 London, Kate attempts to escape an abusive partner while harboring a significant secret. And at a grand estate in 1942, teenaged Violet struggles against the limitations of her father's strict household rules, consumed by an unladylike love for trees, insects and other natural wonders. In alternating chapters, each of these stories deepens. Altha, the daughter of a healer, tries her best to follow in her beloved late mother's footsteps, helping her neighbors and causing no harm, while dodging the increasingly avid witch-hunters of her time. Locked in a Lancaster dungeon, Altha does what she can to protect herself. Kate flees the city undetected, holing up in a cottage inherited from a great-aunt she hardly knew, but her safety there is tenuous as she plans for an uncertain future. Violet is a tenacious and spirited 16-year-old, but powerless as she is imprisoned in her father's world; she dreams of becoming a biologist or an entomologist, but cannot even visit the local village.
Each woman must learn about and come to terms with her powers and her connections to the natural world, and Hart expertly weaves their disparate but connected storylines. With a momentum of its own, Weyward draws readers to a glorious conclusion that celebrates connectedness and the power of women and nature. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
The Queen of Dirt Island
by Donal Ryan
In The Queen of Dirt Island, a quietly propulsive novel, each vignette-like chapter draws in readers with an opening statement, such as "She was born" and "Nana came around." This sixth novel from Irish author Donal Ryan (All We Shall Know; The Spinning Heart) follows the Aylward women, "safe inside their small house, swathed and cosseted in love," and the ways in which they meet life's challenges with mutual support.
The novel opens as three-day-old Saoirse Aylward's father dies in a car crash near the Tipperary estate where the Aylwards had "farmed the land and lived their lives." Saoirse and her mother, Eileen, share their bungalow; Eileen's mother in-law, Nana, lives down the road. The friendship of these women serves as Saoirse's security during her childhood; their laughter meant "the world would find again its perfect peace." Years bring strife: Nana's other son is convicted of gunrunning; Eileen's family shuns her; and Saoirse gets pregnant. Nana addresses their shock: "as cross as your mother is or was or as regretful as you might be it's all the one now for good and for glory." Nana moves in when baby Pearl arrives, forming a four-generation family of Aylward women. Defying the "meanness and sorrow of the world," their strength generates hopefulness and joy. Years later, as Nana is dying, Ryan writes that time "will wind its own sweet way" and beautifully concludes the novel as it began, with Saoirse and Eileen in the bungalow. The two have launched Pearl, grown to be "beautiful inside and out," into the world; she is grounded in love and secure that "things would play out as they would." --Cheryl McKeon, Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.
by Christine Byl
Christine Byl's Lookout is an unforgettable novel, both stunning and subtle, written with nuance and compassion. With all the down-to-earth lyricism displayed in her memoir, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, Byl transports readers to rural Montana in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, where the Kinzler family lives, works and loves. These characters, whose bonds are gorgeously rendered and even inspirational in their imperfections, are deeply lovable.
Josiah Kinzler's family history includes alcoholism and suicide; he is alone in the world before he is 20 but possesses land, skills, a work ethic and strong ties to his neighbors. He marries Margaret Blanchard. Together they eke out a living in her father's hardware store and eventually through Josiah's highly regarded furniture-making and woodworking. Their two daughters, Louisa and Cody, are remarkably different from one another but as fiercely loving as their parents. The family grows into untraditional shapes, but they never lose their commitment to one another, with each member being fully developed and sensitively drawn.
Lookout contains evocative expressions of love, and it is lush in its descriptions of relationships, the natural world and Josiah's exquisite woodworking. Byl writes with an attention to the details of her characters and setting. Cody and her father are similarly laconic and watchful; they share a special bond, as displayed in a stunningly beautiful scene in which he proudly watches her run a chainsaw exactly as he'd taught her. Lookout specializes in the quiet observations of transcendent truths about many facets of life. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Vietnamese poet, nonfiction writer and translator Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's first novel in English, The Mountains Sing, was an internationally lauded bestseller. Her sophomore title, Dust Child, which began as her Ph.D. thesis, is an emotional story that follows families from opposite sides of the globe, traumatized by war and its aftereffects.
Nguyễn introduces 18-year-old Trang and 17-year-old Quỳnh, sisters struggling to repay their parents' staggering debt to violent moneylenders in 1969. When a childhood friend returns to their village with stories of high-paying Sài Gòn office work, both sisters follow her to the city. They join her at the Hollywood Bar, catering to U.S. servicemen. To live through war comes at a high price.
Arriving in Hồ Chí Minh City in 2016 are veteran Dan and his wife, Linda. Being engaged to Linda when he served in Việt Nam didn't prevent him from loving, impregnating and deserting local bar girl Kim. Knowing nothing about Kim, Linda has convinced Dan that returning to now-peaceful Việt Nam will help him face his never-ending terrors. The couple meet Phong, whose father was a Black American soldier and whose immigration application through the Amerasian Homecoming Act was again denied. In hearing about Phong's life, tragic as it's been as a mixed-race orphan--a "dust child"--with an obvious "enemy" father, Dan hopes he might learn more about his own abandoned child. Surprising revelations are guaranteed.
Nguyễn moves the narrative smoothly over 50 years. Through compelling multilayered fiction, she intimately humanizes war's victims, regardless of nationalities. Dust Child reclaims lives too long overlooked. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
by Sarah Gilmartin
Sarah Gilmartin's Dinner Party is a disquieting, utterly absorbing psychological drama fueled by family tragedy, maternal malfeasance and the pernicious tentacles of an eating disorder that has protagonist Kate Gleeson engaged in a daily battle with food. Raised on a farm in Carlow County, Ireland, with her twin sister, Elaine, and brothers Peter and Ray, 30-something Kate lives in a Dublin apartment paid for by her married lover.
The novel opens in 2018 on Halloween night with a family dinner commemorating the 16th anniversary of Elaine's passing. The events leading up to her shocking death unfold in an expertly choreographed dance between past and present. Vivacious Elaine, with her devil-may-care attitude, amber eyes and horse-riding rosettes, was her mother's gravitational center. Her death catapulted Bernadette, the already temperamental and often vicious Gleeson matriarch, into treacherous emotional territory. An anxious, fragile-looking Kate hosts the dinner party, featuring an elaborate meal to be topped off with homemade baked Alaska. Tensions fray even before the main course is over. Bernadette, although boycotting the dinner, is still hugely present at the table. Even as Kate's unraveling appears to be imminent, Gilmartin's narrative makes clear that, despite being repelled by her mother, Kate's recovery is also dependent on forgiving her.
A story writer who reviews books for the Irish Times, Gilmartin puts familial loyalty to the ultimate test in her first novel and highlights an important underlying truth Kate's late father was fond of repeating: "All we have is ourselves. All we have is family."--Shahina Piyarali, reviewer
In the Fall They Leave
by Joanna Higgins
In the Fall They Leave, the fourth novel from Joanna Higgins (Waiting for the Queen), is a tense and engrossing work of historical fiction, following a young nursing student in Belgium as she navigates the anxiety and uncertainty of continuing her studies after the start of World War I. Still reeling from her failure as a pianist at a prestigious music academy, 19-year-old Marie-Thérѐse Hulbert is just beginning to feel competent in caring for patients when Germany invades Brussels. Suddenly, her exams are the least of her worries. She's flooded with anxiety over whom she can and cannot trust and how she can appear to cooperate with German demands while also keeping high-stakes secrets that could mean life or death for her patients, as well as for herself and her family.
Through it all, Marie-Thérѐse is inherently brave and conscientious, her loyalty to those she cares about unwavering. Her integrity compels readers to follow her through these cold, windswept scenes. It's also hard not to root for Marie-Thérѐse when she falls in love with a German lieutenant who seems thoughtful and kind but may have ulterior motives. Higgins positions the push and pull between the couple and Marie-Thérѐse's inner turmoil against the backdrop of a bloody international conflict that remains one of the worst the world has seen. After what Marie-Thérѐse has experienced, it is difficult to imagine she will ever fully heal, but she is nothing if not resilient, even if she and the world are forever changed. --Angela Lutz, freelance reviewer
The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything
by Kara Gnodde
Kara Gnodde explores love, loss and the limits of mathematical certainty in her debut novel, The Theory of (Not Quite) Everything. Siblings Mimi and Art Brotherton have always been close, especially since their parents' tragic, simultaneous deaths. But Mimi is tired of looking after Art (they still share a house) and wants to try and find love. Art, a mathematical genius who struggles socially, agrees to Mimi's dating plan if she'll use his suggested algorithm to screen potential partners. When Mimi falls for Frank, another mathematician (whom she doesn't meet online), Art is initially nonplussed--but then distressed.
Gnodde switches between the siblings' perspectives, giving readers insight into their deep bond and the accompanying conflicts. Mimi has always believed Art was their parents' favorite and felt a deep responsibility to care for him while living in his shadow. Art, meanwhile, increasingly worries that someone may be usurping his work on a vital mathematical problem, which hampers his ability to trust Frank (or anyone). Gnodde employs thoughtful flashbacks, plus a few key present-day revelations, to shed light on the siblings' dynamic. Though the story contains plenty of wit and humor, both Mimi and Art must confront the grief that has kept them from moving forward. (Sensitive readers should be aware of several heartbreaking scenes involving hospitals, injury and death.) Gnodde's debut is wry, warm and romantic (like Mimi herself). She presents a loving portrait of family both biological and chosen and invites readers to engage in a hopeful exploration of the ways love upsets all careful calculations. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Mystery & Thriller
Death and Croissants
by Ian Moore
In Death and Croissants, comedian Ian Moore introduces Richard Ainsworth, a British film buff who has retired to the Loire Valley to run a bed-and-breakfast. With a failing marriage and a somewhat desperate desire to live a quiet life in the country watching old films, Richard is anything but a detective. Then a guest goes missing, leaving behind nothing but a bloody handprint on the wall, and Richard is sucked into a wild goose chase of a mystery, complete with a gorgeous guest dashing about in a bright yellow sports car; possible ties to a mafia moneymaking scheme; an enormous Texan; twin brothers who are sworn mortal enemies; and an aspiring actor hiding in a giant chicken costume.
Moore brings to Death and Croissants the same kind of chaotic energy and dry sense of humor Richard (and readers) may have seen in classic films like Clue and Young Frankenstein: characters run amok and clues send them off in various directions, all while actual danger lurks in the shadows. "We've got an old man who detests his brother so much he needs to find him so he can keep annoying him, a policeman who doesn't seem to think Missing Persons is his job, a mysterious Italian couple now in the grip of two British perverts, you bossing me around like we're married, and a dead hen!" Richard shouts to his co-conspirator somewhere between breaking and entering into a rival B&B and donning the giant chicken costume himself. It's an absurd, laugh-out-loud caper, featuring quirky characters and strange adventures from start to finish, that is sure to delight fans of cozy mysteries and whodunits. --Kerry McHugh, freelance writer
by Jody Gehrman
Renowned forensics expert and professor Hannah Bryers destroyed Winter Jones's life when she was 13. Now Winter is Hannah's new teaching assistant and plans to return the favor in The Protégé, Jody Gehrman's revenge thriller. Hannah's degree in anthropology bolsters her skills as a forensic expert; law enforcement and her employer, Mad River University, revere her opinions. Although her laser-focused analyses are much lauded, her introversion and general social ineptitude result in much side-eye at faculty parties and functions. Amy and Joe, her close friends, view Hannah as endearingly vulnerable, but Winter sees this as the perfect way to destroy the professor's life and ultimately kill her--as payback for something that happened during Winter's childhood.
After becoming Hannah's teaching assistant, Winter monitors the professor's movements via tracking devices, patiently waiting for any opportunity to discredit the so-called expert. And anyone who gets in the way of Winter's insatiable need for revenge only hastens their own demise. Soon, authorities blame baffled Hannah for destroying evidence and for a nearly fatal lab explosion; she also faces murder accusations. A distraught Hannah, ostracized by the community and not knowing whom she can trust, mistakenly confides in Winter.
Gehrman (The Summer We Buried; The Girls Weekend) slowly paces Winter's diabolical plot to destroy Hannah in chapters that alternate between the two women's perspectives, and the villain's identity is obvious from the beginning. Still, the novel retains its nail-biting suspense as readers race to understand Winter's motivations and how--even if--she will succeed with her plan. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis, freelance reviewer
Science Fiction & Fantasy
Feed Them Silence
by Lee Mandelo
Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo (Summer Sons) is an original speculative novella and, beyond that, a singular sensory experience. Dr. Sean Kell-Luddon has always wanted to run with the wolves: to know what it means to smell, taste and experience the world the way they do and to feel part of a pack. When she receives private funding for her experimental study on neurological linkages between humans and animals, using herself as the primary test subject, she enters into the mind of Kate, a local wolf in the wild. But Sean falls deeper into her work and finds herself disconnecting not only from the human world but also from her partner, Riya.
Mandelo's lush descriptions make Sean and Kate's dual wants, needs and fears feel visceral. From the moment the initial neurological link occurs, Mandelo launches readers into Kate-via-Sean's embodied processing as the "wolves rolled across the loamy forest floor, slobbering on faces and chewing ears and outpouring love. The startling recognition of a specific feeling--plus the cracking stretch of her own heaving rib cage--offered Sean a brief psychic harbor." Mandelo locates the novella's primary tension in these descriptions: what it means to intellectually untangle the instinctive desires of the body, human or otherwise, and to feel--or be inside of--what seems like physical need. As Sean "split[s] her attentions between the staggering wealth of affective input and her critical understanding of those inputs," Mandelo destabilizes the way one feels intimacy at the same time as they invoke that feeling naturally. --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor
by Leopoldo Gout
In Piñata, the intense and vivid paranormal thriller by Leopoldo Gout (Monarca, with Eva Aridjis; Genius), the year is 2027. Carmen Sánchez has arrived in Tulancingo, a small town two hours outside Mexico City, with her daughters, 16-year-old Izel and 11-year-old Luna. Born in Mexico, single mother Carmen hasn't been back to her birth country in years and her daughters have never been there. She's overseeing the renovation of an ancient abbey into a fancy hotel. She couldn't leave the girls at home with her overworked mother, so they've come along for the summer.
Being a woman boss--who looks like a local but clearly isn't--proves challenging, but Carmen finds allies in the abbey's onsite representative, Father Verón, and physicist-turned-artisan Quauhtli. Despite their support, they can't protect her when a suspicious accident puts Carmen's job in jeopardy. She's not fired, but she's to be replaced by another colleague--male and white. By the time the family returns to New York, Luna, whose usually sunny personality was already being overshadowed by what Carmen thought was just adolescent moodiness, has changed completely. She's gone sullen and secretive, and Carmen hears inexplicable noises in Luna's locked room. And then Carmen's mother falls down the stairs and almost dies, and Luna swears she heard nothing. Just what did the Sanchez women bring back?
While Gout's initial exposition tends to meander and repeat, as soon as the otherworldly realms are fully unleashed, the cinematics take over in fast-action, haunting, corpse-dropping splendor. And you thought those colorful piñatas were just for kids! --Terry Hong, BookDragon
by Mia Tsai
Mia Tsai's debut contemporary fantasy, Bitter Medicine, has it all: cinematic xianxia-inspired action scenes, thoroughly developed characters, romance and a diverse, fascinating magical world. When Chinese magical calligrapher Elle's younger brother attempted to murder his older siblings, Elle and her older brother faked their deaths and went into hiding. Twenty-six years later, she's selling simple glyphs for a fairy temp agency and never using the jade laes that connects her to her ancestors (a laes holds a fae's magical essence). French half-elf security agent Luc has been coming to Elle for years, both of them wishing for more than their brief exchanges but holding back because they don't want to endanger one another. Just as their personal relationship starts to deepen, Luc's latest assignment puts them both directly in the path of Elle's murderous brother.
Bitter Medicine is steeped in yearning. Luc has spent decades suppressing his personal feelings and desires, building a wall between himself and the world in order to tolerate the awful things he is magically compelled to do as his boss's Fixer. Elle has disconnected from her ancestors, including the Chinese god of medicine, in order to protect her brother and they've moved frequently, so she has no social life. Elle and Luc have both done things they believe unforgivable, but they're good people and easy to root for.
Bitter Medicine is contemporary fantasy at its best: sharp, complex but contained and driven by two lovable characters working hard for their Happily Ever After. --Suzanne Krohn, librarian and freelance reviewer
Food & Wine
Did You Eat Yet? Craveable Recipes from an All-American Asian Chef
by Ronnie Woo
Self-described "model turned therapist turned globetrotting chef who also happens to be Asian, American, and gay," Ronnie Woo brings readers his first cookbook. Did You Eat Yet? is a delicious combination of tasty recipes, autobiographical stories and photos of mouthwatering meals. Most of the photos are of the dishes Woo creates, but for thirsty foodie fans there's enough dishy photos of Woo in short shorts or shirtless to rival Queer Eye chef Antoni Porowski.
The recipes are wide-ranging. "I've never fit into a single box, and neither do my recipes," writes Woo. He divides his cookbook into chapters on sauces, breakfast (including breakfast tacos, pancakes and cinnamon rolls), healthy food (sweet potato chowder, coconut curry chickpea and cherry tomato stew, salads), noodles (garlic noodles, rice cakes, burrata, wontons), snacks (puff pastry bites, sushi, bao, chicken wings, pork sliders) and vegetarian fare (crispy fried onions, eggplant adobo, asparagus and chorizo stir-fry). Three chapters cover various recipes for chicken, seafood and meat dishes. And the final chapter explores desserts (including blackberry ice cream, sushi-rice pudding, salted upside-down buttermilk banana cake, flourless chocolate cake and caramelized egg tart). Each recipe (spread over two or three pages) contains a list of ingredients, a three- or four-step set of baking/assembly instructions, Woo's autobiographical memory of that food and an appetizing photo of the final product.
Woo's charming and funny intros to each dish broaden the appeal of this cookbook. This is not just a collection of recipes; it's a friendly and endearing conversation with an exuberant and playful foodie and chef--and a tasty treat for gourmands and gourmets alike. --Kevin Howell, independent reviewer and marketing consultant
Biography & Memoir
Happily: A Personal History--with Fairy Tales
by Sabrina Orah Mark
Sabrina Orah Mark's Happily is a bubbling cauldron filled with 26 essays formed from ingredients as diverse as parenting and premonitions, mythological creatures and marriage, mothers and sons, fairies and witches, and always there is magic. As with her column in the Paris Review (also called "Happily"), readers who follow the path of crumbs Mark lays out enter willingly into a dream sequence of an essay, where one incongruent thing can lead to the next, forming its own kind of coherence and truth.
In the opening essay ("Ghost People"), she walks a perimeter of concern around her son, who, she learns, is making Ghost People out of wood chips on the playground at school. After a brief narrative to set readers on her chosen path, she turns to Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, wondering, "Maybe because Geppetto understands that sometimes the things we create to protect us, to give us good fortune, need first to thin us into a vulnerability where the only thing that can save us are those things that almost erased us.... Or maybe it's just that Geppetto is lonely." At first glance, these two moments don't match, hanging loosely together as they do. But as Mark works, she proves herself worthy of every confidence.
In another essay, Mark explains that "Fairy tales are homemade stories turned inside out. You can see the threads, the stitching line, the seams." Mark's essays do much the same work, often ending somewhere far from where the reader may have expected; however, it is always exactly as it should be, the only "ever after" that could have come from such a "Happily" beginning. --Sara Beth West, freelance reviewer and librarian
Goodbye to Clocks Ticking: How We Live While Dying
by Joseph Monninger
In May 2021, at age 67, three days after teaching his last class at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire and looking forward to a busy, active retirement in a cabin on the coast of Maine, Joseph Monninger (Game Change) received a diagnosis for the shortness of breathing he'd recently begun experiencing: inoperable lung cancer, which had spread through his body and would likely kill him by September. An author and fit outdoorsman who hadn't smoked in 30 years, Monninger was stunned to hear this grim prognosis and began to figure out how best to live in the little time he has left. He captures these experiences in elegant, spare prose in Goodbye to Clocks Ticking.
Like many people facing imminent death, Monninger begins to appreciate much that was easy to overlook, like watching birds at the feeder and simple moments with his girlfriend, Susan, and with fishing buddies he's traveled with for 40 years. He also wryly observes how his life has changed in unanticipated ways: "I realized... I would never need to buy another piece of clothing." He has thoughts of ending his life.
But then a kind of miracle occurs: because of an unusual gene mutation he has, Monninger can receive Tagrisso, a drug that likely will extend his life by years and enable him to end chemotherapy. The drug has the desired effect and soon Monninger is again readjusting to life, limited in some ways, but now with a happier prognosis. A trip to Nebraska to see the migration of sandhill cranes in the spring with Susan becomes a kind of glorious, beautiful symbol of his new opportunities to enjoy life. --John Mutter, editor-in-chief, Shelf Awareness
Essays & Criticism
Five Conversations About Peter Sellers: An Essay
by Elizabeth Gonzalez James
By all accounts, the outrageous behavior of English comic actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980) was a key reason the 1967 James Bond vehicle Casino Royale turned into a turkey. What's more, one of Sellers's biographers suggests that the guy was a jerk. And yet, following some research that Elizabeth Gonzalez James (Mona at Sea) did for a novel about a comic actor in the 1960s, she finds herself fixated on Sellers. Five Conversations About Peter Sellers is James's funny, dogged and structurally inventive effort to reckon with the question that consumes her and may well come to consume her readers: What's up with her obsession with Peter Sellers?
Its title notwithstanding, James's book reads like a single conversation. Each of five characters, the author among them, represents a different slant that she, as "Elizabeth," summarizes as "personal excavation, film history, pop culture reportage, cultural criticism, and dispassionate metatextual analysis." Disagreements abound among the conversationalists. (Abby: "For God's sake/ haven't we exhausted/ this examination of hideous men?... Close the curtains./ Strike the set./ Shut it down./ Shut all of it/ down." Elizabeth: "No, we're not done. And that isn't the answer.") Is Five Conversations About Peter Sellers stronger for its multiple-perspectives format, or could the book have achieved the same end if James had structured it as a straight-up first-person essay that considers various viewpoints? Not in question is the book's ultimate value: with its pitiless dissection of Casino Royale, it's hard to imagine a more engaging postmortem on a problematic cinematic artifact. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer
by Lindsey A. Freeman
Running has long been a refuge for sociologist, professor and former NCAA Division I track athlete Lindsey A. Freeman (Longing for the Bomb), who explores her love for the sport in the insightful Running, an entry in the Practices series. She celebrates the physical joy of running, the way it allows her to be "in a body feeling my way through a landscape and my own thoughts." She recalls her experiences as a high school and college athlete; charts her training for various races, including the Boston and Paris marathons; explores the connections between running and writing; and recounts from a queer perspective her experiences with the sport and its imagery. "Running is always about more than running," she writes, bringing her whole self--feminist, queer, academic, white, American--to this exploration. More poetic than practical, but intensely vivid and personal, Running bounces from pop-culture analysis to academic inquiry, from a catalogue of injuries (including those from a devastating incident in which a vehicle hit her) to an exploration of the elusive "runner's high."
Freeman's reflections--in the form of brief essays with illustrations by Hazel Meyer--always come back to practice: the ways running, writing and other habits can shape a person. She offers practical advice for building endurance, acknowledges the inevitable pain and discomfort of running and explores the possibilities that can open up through repetition: "I keep practicing because I want to remain a writer and a runner." Running is a worthwhile companion for people who want to be either--or both. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Children's & Young Adult
Enter the Body
by Joy McCullough
Joy McCullough (Blood Water Paint) pays homage to William Shakespeare, whom she admires for how he "took established stories and made them his own." McCullough, in turn, commendably retells the Bard's tragedies in fiercely feminist examinations of Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear and Titus Andronicus, built into an overarching plot that allows the plays' female characters to tell their own stories.
Enter the Body is divided into three parts. Part One begins in the trap room, a large open space beneath a theater's stage that acts as a "purgatory" for those who "die" onstage. Thirteen-year-old Juliet, 15-year-old Ophelia, 17-year-old Cordelia and 19-year-old Lavinia reside here, among others. Juliet tells the story of her forbidden love; Ophelia describes how she'd "been used/ and humiliated/ by these men"; Cordelia "made a sacrifice born out of love" only to be disowned by her father. One character whose story is not told but who is equally important is Titus Andronicus's Lavinia. Lavinia, with her tongue cut out and her hands cut off so she couldn't reveal the vile acts that had been done to her, represents the women who can't tell their stories, whether out of fear or death.
Part Two is written as dialogue in a play, with the women analyzing their stories and discussing Shakespeare's misogynistic choices. Juliet is fed up with the way things have always been done and challenges the women to tell their story as they would have liked it to play out. As a result, in Part Three, each woman shares her ideal version while the others provide astute and droll commentary. A poetic and entrancing tribute to the women of Shakespeare. --Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Different for Boys
by Patrick Ness, illus. by Tea Bendix
Patrick Ness (And the Ocean Was Our Sky) offers a raw yet tender portrayal of the homosexuality and masculinity of several white, cisgender high school boys in the starkly illustrated YA novel Different for Boys.
Ant, who speaks directly to readers in his first-person narration, reunites with his childhood friend group, including effeminate, closeted Jack and blatantly homophobic Charlie. Ant reveals he is in a clandestine intimate relationship with Charlie, but the jock "makes it clear we're just goofing around." Despite Charlie's public macho posturing and his homophobia-fueled verbal and physical attacks on others, Ant continues to defend "the Charlie no one knows but me." Ant's pain and longing is palpable as he pivots between his desire for a deeper romantic connection with Charlie, wanting but failing to support Jack, and grappling with his own sexuality.
Throughout the story, Ant maintains a private, honest conversation with the reader even as words, phrases and whole sentences are censored with black boxes. "Certain words are necessary because this is real life, but you can't actually show 'em because we're too young to read about the stuff we actually do, right?" Debut illustrator Tea Bendix's striking unpolished pencil and digital collage art depicts the characters and setting both realistically and through visual metaphor. Bendix often depicts the young men as being somewhat transparent, and grayscale hallways and classrooms echo the brutal honesty and the imperfect realities laid bare in the text. Ness's forceful storytelling fused with Bendix's rich sketches result in an achingly beautiful reflection of the multiple, messy realities and experiences of young queerness. --Kieran Slattery, freelance reviewer, teacher, co-creator of Gender Inclusive Classrooms
You Are Here: Connecting Flights
by Ellen Oh
You Are Here, the inaugural title from Allida, an imprint from Clarion/HarperCollins designed to showcase marginalized creators, offers 12 reassuring and absorbing illustrations of contemporary Asian American young people as they face seemingly insurmountable intolerance.
The young East and Southeast Asian Americans in these connecting stories endure a surge of overt racism in a Chicago airport after several travelers overdramatize a TSA incident involving a Thai family. One xenophobic traveler's words--"hopefully they go back to their own country"--spills into three different stories. The brewing hostility is stymied by characters asserting their belonging: "Now I'm mad," says one girl, who tells her sister to avoid "friends" who pretend she has Covid-19 during "Chinese Tag." A protagonist tells off a couple insulting her parents, sparking another character to confront her white friend's cultural appropriation. Underlying every bold move--an autistic boy starts writing a book centering someone like him, a musician channels Van Halen to prove he can be named Lee Chang and play guitar--is uncertainty, but the brief connections the tweens forge remind them they are not alone.
Ellen Oh (editor of Flying Lessons & Other Stories) brings together resonant voices, including bestselling authors Traci Chee, Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin and Allida imprint co-leader Linda Sue Park. They portray young U.S.-born citizens of diverse backgrounds--Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai and Vietnamese--whose empathetic acts of solidarity demonstrate the resilience of the heart and the need for all Asian American experiences to be recognized as definitively American. --Samantha Zaboski, freelance editor and reviewer
Sometimes I Feel Like a River
by Danielle Daniel, illus. by Josée Bisaillon
Canadian author and painter Danielle Daniel's immersive Sometimes I Feel Like a River is a companion to her 2015 award-winning Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox. Fellow Canadian artist Josée Bisaillon (Out into the Big Wide Lake illustrator) enhances Daniel's dozen poems with whimsical, welcoming spreads of marvelous landscapes, populated by children reflecting notably diverse backgrounds. Words and images work synchronously to inspire both quiet explorations and exciting adventures.
"Sometimes I feel like the sun," Daniel begins, "bright and early rising./ I shine my light upon the earth/ while birds joyfully sing." A child in a yellow-striped shirt and bright orange boots, flanked by stylized wildflowers, watches the sunrise across open water. Birds fly above distant rooftops, a seal surfaces as if in greeting. The reader's perspective invitingly mirrors that of the child's, looking out from over the child's shoulder.
As pages progress, the beckoning experiences continue: kayaking in "a river,/ bending and flowing fast"; climbing "a mountain,/ mighty and strong"; soaking in "the rain,/ cool and most refreshing"; swimming through "an ocean,/ deep and mysterious." At adventure's end, Daniel encourages readers to go for their own "mindful walk or roll"--an inclusive nod to wheelchair-dependent mobility--"under the beautiful sky." Her author's note emphasizes our connections to the natural world, which also includes each other.
Daniel and Bisaillon's splendid collaboration proves to be a powerful invitation to breathe in the great outdoors and "to celebrate and champion" nature with eyes, ears and grateful hearts. --Terry Hong, BookDragon
The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams
by Daniel Nayeri, illus. by Daniel Miyares
Most middle-grade novels don't begin with the storyteller being stoned to death. But The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams goes delightfully rogue. The 11th-century Silk Road is a treacherous place for all who journey there in this ambitious, mesmerizing adventure by Printz-winning author Daniel Nayeri (Everything Sad Is Untrue).
Omar's story opens as he is chased down by former friends who are stoning him for "crimes against God," though, as far as his "heart can tell," he has not committed any. After being rescued--purchased--by a portly and charismatic merchant calling himself "Samir, the Seller of Dreams," Omar is bound as a servant and renamed Monkey. As Omar/Monkey journeys through the desert, he gets to know Samir's trickster ways and his caravan of fellow merchants and travelers. Soon, the beautiful Mara catches Monkey's eye and, despite her patronizing indifference to him, he falls in love. When the group learns that assassins are hunting Samir, Monkey sees his chance to secure his freedom and impress Mara.
Nayeri's breathtaking story takes readers on a harrowing journey along one of history's most legendary trails. The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams has that rare immersive, almost magical quality that feels both timeless and fresh, bred of myth and legend, yet brimming with realism and life. Gorgeous full-color paintings by Daniel Miyares (Float) strengthen key pieces of the story, giving readers a sense of the heat of the blacksmith's tent, the cool of the desert twilight and the lurking dangers. Frightening, hilarious and heartfelt, Nayeri's novel defies expectations, offering middle-graders an unforgettable read. --Kyla Paterno, freelance reviewer
The Writer's Life
2023 Michael L. Printz Award Winner Sabaa Tahir
(Ayesha Ahmad Photography)
Author Sabaa Tahir recently won the 2023 Michael L. Printz Award for her National Book Award-winning novel, All My Rage (Razorbill).
All My Rage has now won both the National Book Award and the Printz (and it's a bestseller). Considering this title had already won an NBA, were you hoping it might get a Printz nod, too?
The [notification] call was emotional, funny, moving and so, so joyful. I thought we were talking about paper stock for the paperback of All My Rage, because it's out at the beginning of March. And since I'd only ever heard that award winners were notified the morning of the Youth Media Awards, I wasn't expecting anything. When the committee came on the screen and told me, I cried and scared my cat and then babbled a lot of thank yous.
Regarding any hope around the Printz--I was still in shock from the National Book Award! This book has found such love in the world--I am very grateful for that.
Would you kindly give readers your two-sentence pitch for All My Rage?
Of course! All My Rage is a YA coming-of-age story about two high schoolers, Noor and Salahudin, trying to survive a Mojave Desert town that seems intent on crushing them. It also follows Salahudin's mother, Misbah, as she emigrates from Pakistan to America and all the hope, joy and struggle that come with such a journey.
Shelf Awareness's review notes that the rage expressed in the book is tangible, "evocative and ever-present." Did you have to put yourself in a certain headspace to evoke this kind of emotion?
I used to call AMR my "anger" book, because I would work on it when I was filled with rage--at society, the news, dictators abroad, dictators at home--you name it. I was angry when I wrote the early drafts of this book, and found that, when I went to edit it, I had to temper that anger, to meld it with other truths: empathy, love and hope. That was the alchemy that made the book work, both for me and for my agent and editor.
What kind of research did you do for this book? I imagine you had to do some work to make sure the historical aspects of the novel were correct, but were there other things you had to investigate?
So much research! I talked to doctors about emergency room medicine, particularly with children and teens. I talked to a doctor extensively about kidney disease and exactly what would happen during renal failure. I talked to a lawyer about what Salahudin would be facing in the courtroom and what usually happened in drug cases like his and Noor's. I repeatedly sat at a courthouse for hours, just trying to get a sense of both atmosphere and procedure. I talked to a former paramedic, author Daniel José Older, about EMTs and Narcan. That's really the tip of the iceberg. The research happened over years and took ages.
What I think is particularly cool about this book getting so much love is that it's your first work of realism. What made you want to move away from the fantastic and into the terrestrial? How was writing realism different than writing speculative fiction?
It was a very challenging switch. I reminded myself almost daily, "Hey you can't fix this problem with magic. And the tension can't always come from battle scenes!" At the same time, my books at their core are about hope in dark times, through difficult circumstances. Hope sustained me through so much of my own life and seeing it in books meant so much to me as a kid. So, in that regard, hope served as a touchstone for me. When I was panicking that I didn't know what I was doing, I'd tell myself, "This is a story like all the other stories. And you have to tell it honestly."
This is also your only book that is not part of a series, correct? Did it feel different to write a book that had to encapsulate the entire story you wanted to tell?
It was a bit of a relief! I don't have to worry about coming up with a sequel. But at the same time... that made the ending bittersweet. Characters stay with me. These ones lived in my head for more than a decade. I miss them.
Are you working on anything now?
I am working on a young adult fantasy about a tracker, a prince and a vengeful fugitive. It is great fun! I hope to be able to talk more about it soon.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell Shelf Awareness readers?
Please support your local and school libraries! Librarians are having to deal with more book challenges than ever before, and they need to know that we believe in them and that we are behind them. --Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
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"Why does English have so many silent letters?" Merriam-Webster wondered.
Rediscover: John Jakes
Author John Jakes, a "writer of historical fiction whose generational family sagas of the American Revolution and the Civil War mingled real and imaginary characters and became runaway bestsellers and popular television fare," died March 11 at age 90, the New York Times reported. Jakes wrote about 60 novels, including westerns, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy and children's books. He was best known for two book series: the Kent Family Chronicles, eight volumes written in the 1970s to capitalize on the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations (55 million copies were sold), and the North and South Civil War trilogy, which was released in the 1980s (10 million copies).
Jakes began his career freelance writing in his spare time while working in advertising from 1954 to 1971. He published hundreds of short stories and wrote novels, primarily westerns and fantasies, some under the pen names Jay Scotland and Alan Payne. His breakthrough came in 1974 with the publication of The Bastard, the first volume of what would be the Kent Family Chronicles. Other books in the series include The Rebels, The Seekers (both 1975), which were adapted for television as mini-series in 1978 and 1979; as well as The Furies, The Titans (both 1976), The Warriors (1977), The Lawless (1978) and The Americans (1979).
"I feel a real responsibility to my readers," Jakes told the Washington Post in 1982. "I began to realize about two or three books into the Kent series that I was the only source of history that some of these people had ever had. Maybe they'll never read a Barbara Tuchman book--but down at the Kmart they'll pick up one of mine."
His success prompted Harcourt Brace Jovanovich to commission a Civil War-era hardcover trilogy that included North and South (1982), Love and War (1984) and Heaven and Hell (1987). Another mini-series was adapted from those books.
By the 1990s, Jakes "had joined the charmed circle of America's big-name authors--among them Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Wolfe, James Clavell, Thomas Harris and Ira Levin--whose publishers paid millions in advances for multi-book deals, although they had only vague ideas what the books might say," the Times noted. Random House paid Jakes a $4 million advance for the bestseller California Gold. A $10 million advance a year later produced the two-volume Crown Family Saga as well as In the Big Country (1993), a collection of his stories set in the American West.
"I love melodrama," he once told the Times in an interview. "I never outgrew my fondness for melodrama."